Sedan is an unpretentious yet energetic little town in north east France. It rests about 10 kilometres from the Belgian border on the edge of the French Ardennes. As you pass through Sedan, it may take your attention for its pretty streets and its fort – the largest in Europe but by and large it seems typically French. Sedan however has a long history of invasion, occupation, restlessness and warfare and this has given it a unique air of robustness and maturity.
Sedan is in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France. The historic core of the town sits on a peninsula formed by a bow in the Meuse River. The prominent river topography has generally been the worst enemy of the town. Sedan was founded in 1424 and in the sixteenth century, became an official asylum for the Protestant émigrés from the religious wars.
Sedan was originally a sovereign principality presided over by the illustrious Marshall Turenne. It later became a part of France when it was surrendered back to the main state to spare the life of Frederic Maurice de La Tour d’Auvergne. He was a prominent member of the ruling family and represented a threat to the French state; he was sentenced to death.
Much more recent history records that the Emperor Napoleon III was taken prisoner along with 100,000 of his troops at Sedan during the Franco Prussian War in 1870. It was one of the early Prussian victories and led to an annual national holiday in Germany that remained until 1919. The holiday was called ‘Sedan Day’.
Sedan was occupied again by Germany for four years during the Great War. The German Crown Prince paraded his 13th Infantry Division around the town to mark their conquest. The French military had displayed stiff but fruitless determination to defend their land so close to the border with occupied Belgium. The Second World War brought further violent conflict to Sedan. In 1940, the German army with a force of highly mobile Panzer tanks invaded, and a furious ‘Battle of Sedan’ ensued, spreading over three days with possession of the town passing back and forth, 16 times. The French army fought to exhaustion but were unable to defeat the superior military strength of Germany. Ultimately, it was the air power of the German Luftwaffe that produced the victory. The air attacks were constant and furious. Most of the 17th and 18th century houses in the centre of Sedan town were destroyed as a result. The Germans took the town and it proved a major factor in the ultimate occupation of France during WW2 and led ultimately to the allied force evacuation back to Britain from Dunkirk not long afterwards.
It was really the well bridged bend in the Meuse River on the border between France and the occupied territories that was always the attraction for the invading forces. They could get to it with no threat of surprise then easily supply their forces from it after it had been crossed. The poor little town of wondrously historic Sedan has always just been in the wrong place.
The Sedan of today is a tranquil, rather sunny place with around 20,000 inhabitants. The town is pristinely clean and maintained. It is filled with shops, restaurants, window boxes of flowers, the architecture is beautiful and there is a good theatre.
The principal feature in Sedan is the enormous and dominating fortress in the centre. It is said to be the largest castle in Europe and covers a vast area of 30,000 square metres over seven floors. It is the only remaining structure from the fortifications that protected the town in medieval times. Part of it has been converted to an extraordinary and luxurious hotel and archery is a popular form of sport here.
The border with Belgium is just a few kilometres along the road leading out of Sedan. The route traverses the spectacular foothills of the rolling French Ardennes region. The topography provides some of the most spectacular landscape views in France. The combination of the sights, scents and rustic agriculture constitute some of the most beautiful rural life in France.
Sedan today is rightly proud and remains conscious of its history dictated by its geographical vulnerability. It sees itself as a regional monument in a way, a sort of commemoration to the 21st century unity that has come to Europe.
Bob Lyons is a retired airline pilot turned writer and a total Francophile.